I’ve been super busy of late so I completely forgot to write this article, which should have came out last Friday. The 23-9-4 Panthers had a good run of 14 games since I last posted one of these, going 9-5-0. Unfortunately, the Panthers have been hampered by the injury bug of late.
One of the main themes of the Florida Panthers this year has been their resiliency. They don’t go down easy. They have one of the best records in the NHL when they allow the first goal. The team is calm, composed and methodical. The Panthers resiliency was tested last week when they lost Captain Aleksander Barkov. They struggled in their first two games without him, as Kevin Lankinen and the Chicago Blackhawks handed the Panthers their second and third losses in a row in a stretch. The Panthers would rebound with a three game winning streak starting Saturday night.
The Panthers in the past week have not only lost Barkov, they lost Patric Hornqvist and Anthony Duclair. None of those injuries come close to the worst injury-Aaron Ekblad. The former first overall pick was having a breakout season, coming off of scoring two goals in a single overtime frame, when he went down with a scary lower-body injury and had to be stretchered off. The Panthers would hold on to win.
The Panthers offense is pretty streaky. Without Sasha Barkov, the team struggled at first, but found their mojo when they went to Dallas. That is thanks to Carter Verehaege. Verehaege has scored five goals in his past three games. Additionally, Jonathan Huberdeau has three goals in his past two games. Without Barkov, Huberdeau and Verehaege are the primary drivers of the offense. Losing Duclair will hurt, because of the chemistry he has built up with Verehaege.
It is likely the Panthers will turn to their rookies for offensive help. With a plethora of defensive minded forwards in the offense such as Wennberg, Luostarinen and Lammikko, among others, I expect for the team to go with a prospect. Ryan Lomberg, who has been scratched is more of a defensive forward. Aleski Heponiemi and Grigori Denisenko are the most likely options for that role. Coach Q would probably be best putting that winger with Verehaege and Noel Acciari, in order to keep lineup consistency.
Aleksander Barkov and Patric Hornqvist are projected to return to the lineup soon. I have no idea when Hornqvist was placed on the IR retroactive to, but I believe Barkov would be more likely to come back first. I expect both players to make their return to the lineup Saturday.
Despite losing Ekblad, the Panthers D looked solid Tuesday night. Granted it was against a last place Detroit team, but still. Mackenzie Weegar will be taking over as the team’s number 1 defenseman. Gustav Forsling has been very solid as well. Radko Gudas has struggled of late, I think he’s playing through an injury, but Keith Yandle’s defensive play has been better than usual lately. Riley Stillman did a fine job in his return to the lineup, and Markus Nutivaara hasn’t made any critical mistakes, but hasn’t been a game changer.
Anton Stralman has been struggling and was assigned to the taxi squad for the Dallas series. Stralman is a buyout candidate, but it would probably be smarter for the Panthers to suck up the final year of his contract, as Barkov, Verehaege and others will be due massive extensions. A buyout would give the team $3M in cap next year, but they would lose a crucial $1.5M for the following year in which extensions are due.
Overall, the biggest improvement this season has been the goaltending. Coach Joel Quenneville went with the right move with a platoon style set-up, as Sergei Bobrovsky’s numbers have improved. Bob’s numbers aren’t at the Veznia quality level, but they are definitely enough for a high-octane offensive team to sustain consistent winning. Last year, his numbers were not at that level. Chris Driedger has continued his storming of the league with a dominant .927 save percentage. If Driedger can keep up the high level of play and Bob can get his numbers into the .910s, the Panthers should be set.
Bobrovsky has been noticeably calmer in net. The Panthers have done a better job this year at limiting high-danger scoring chances, which has helped tremendously, and Bob has delivered a lot when needed.
The team looks solid, but we don’t know what they are truly made of without Ekblad yet. The series next week against Carolina will be a good test for the Ekblad-less defense. The Panthers may need to make a couple of moves, such as bringing in another top 4 defender to help replace Ekblad. Anton Stralman just doesn’t cut it. The Panthers cannot panic. Morale seems to be high around the club right now, and getting Barkov and Hornqvist back will definitely help the team.